The Face on the Twenty Dollar Bill

You may have been noticing a few modest news articles and op-ed pieces about a proposal to take Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman. Thanks to the First Amendment’s protection of the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, a petition has been presented to the White House to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 in time for the centennial of the 19th Amendment – the one that gave women the right to vote.

The petitioners’ arguments are varied. While I understand and sympathize with their effort, I believe that if they really want to celebrate Women’s Suffrage, they really blew it.

First, there’s the “Case Against Andrew Jackson”. Of the four people on our common currency, he’s probably got the weakest case. Washington and Lincoln are obvious choices for the $1 and $5. Hamilton gets the $10 because he was the first Treasury secretary. But Jackson? Who the heck is he, and what’s he doing there?

The seventh president, he was the first who was not a member of the Massachusetts/Virginia elite. He fought against the Bank of the United States, which he rightly perceived as being a tool of the wealthy establishment – the “1 Percent” of his era – and made many attempts at reforming and regulating the banking system. Thanks to a land boom and ruthless spending cuts, Jackson managed to pay off the national debt for the only time in our nation’s history. Additionally, his personal honor and courage were without question.

The arguments against? Well, like many other people of this time, he owned slaves. And he didn’t do much to try and stop the practice (like many other people of the time). As a military leader, he was responsible for fighting native tribes and participating in their removal and relocation. It’s a little debatable as to how much of that constituted atrocities (the current consensus is leaning towards the position that yes, he did go beyond even what was acceptable for the time).

Given that, the people at womenon20s.org feel it’s time to take him off and replace him with a historically significant woman. We have had women on our money before, but dollar coins (which have featured Susan B. Anthony and a representation of Sacajawea) never caught on. They did a large online polling, and Harriet Tubman came out as the favorite.

To refresh your memory, Tubman was a key organizer on what was known as the “Underground Railroad”. Her personal courage on the front lines in the struggle against slavery is without question. She is worthy of our honor and respect. But I cannot  help but wonder if her choice was more a combination of her being an African-American woman who fought slavery (all the right “PC” checkmarks) plus having the name recognition to win a popular polling like this one.

If the intent is to commemorate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, doesn’t it make a heck of a lot more sense to go with a leader of the Women’s Suffrage movement – especially when there is a clear and obvious candidate?

Born in 1885, Alice Paul earned a Master’s Degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and went to England to continue her studies. There, she met suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and found her calling. She joined their fight, and did time in London jails for her trouble. She carried their torch to the US when she returned in 1910. Peaceful protests, like parades and picketing the White House, led to multiple arrests and prison sentences – and a lot of press coverage. She endured abuse from bystanders at her demonstrations as well as the police and her jailers. Her continued “in your face” protests (and the press coverage) led directly to the House of Representatives passing a women’s suffrage amendment in 1918, and the Senate doing the same the next year. The Nineteenth Amendment to the USA Constitution was ratified in August 1920.

Paul didn’t rest on that laurel. In 1923, she proposed an Equal Rights Amendment and continued to fight for it through the decades to follow. She was a key figure in getting protection for women included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Only a debilitating stroke in 1974 stopped her activism. She died in 1977.

Sadly, it seems most people think Women’s Rights issues only started to matter in the late 1960s – well past Paul’s era of influence. So she is forgotten by the general public. She did get put on a $10 gold coin in 2012 – but who sees those other than collectors?

If you really want to commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment by putting a woman on our currency, doesn’t it make perfect sense to go with the woman who, more than any other person, was directly responsible for that Amendment?

Alice Paul 20

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